Fair Oaks

By the summer of 1862 the main Union Army under George McClellan was ready to march on Richmond. McClellan and his 115,000 men encountered the Confederate Army at Williamsburg on 4th May. McClellan moved his troops into the Shenandoah Valley and along with John C. Fremont, Irvin McDowell and Nathaniel Banks surrounded Thomas Stonewall Jackson and his 17,000 man army.

Thomas Stonewall Jackson was under orders from President Jefferson Davis to try and delay the attack on Richmond. Jackson attacked John C. Fremont at Cross Keys before turning on Irvin McDowell at Port Republic. Jackson then rushed his troops east to join up with Joseph E. Johnston and the Confederate forces fighting George McClellan in the suburbs the city.

On 29th May, 1862, General Joseph E. Johnston with some 41,800 men counter-attacked McClellan's slightly larger army at Fair Oaks. The first charge was made against forces led by Magruder at Seven Pines. When General George McClellan heard the firing on the other side of River Chickahominy, he sent Sumner to reinforce Magruder.In boggy, wooded terrain and heavy fighting, both sides suffered heavy losses.

General Joseph E. Johnston was badly wounded during the battle and could not take part in the next day's fighting. James Longstreet led the attack the following day but made little progress. In the afternoon, General Robert E. Lee arrived to replace Johnson. He immediately ordered a withdrawal to the original Confederate positions. During the battle the Union Army lost 5,031 men and the Confederate Army 6,134.

Primary Sources

(1) Sarah E. Edmonds was at Fair Oaks in May, 1862. She wrote about it in her book, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army (1865)

The "hospital tree" was an immense tree under whose shady, extended branches the wounded were carried and laid down to await the stimulant, the opiate, or the amputating knife, as the case might require. The ground around the tree was several acres in extent was literally drenched with human blood, and all the men were laid so close together that there was no such thing as passing between them; but each one was removed in their turn as the surgeons could attend to them. Those wounded, but not mortally - how nobly they bore the necessary probings and needed amputations.

(2) In his autobiography General Oliver Howard describes how he was ordered to reinforce Brigadier General Wiiliam French at Fair Oaks on 29th May, 1862.

Just as we were ready to advance, the enemy's fire began to meet us, cutting through the trees. My brown horse was wounded through the shoulder, and I had to dismount and wait for another. Turning toward the men, I saw that some had been hit and others were leaving their ranks. This was their first experience under fire. I cried out with all my might: "Lie down!" Every man dropped to the ground. In five minutes I had mounted my large grey horse, my brother (Charles Howard) riding my third and only other one, a beautiful zebra.

In order to encourage the men in a forward movement I placed myself, mounted, in front of the 64th New York, and Lieutenant Charles H. Howard, in front of the 61st New York. Every officer was directed to repeat each command. I ordered: "Forward!" and then "March!" I could hear the echo of those words and, as I started, the 64th followed me with a glad shout up the slope and through the woods.

Before reaching French's line I was wounded through the right forearm by a small Mississippi rifle ball. Lieutenant Howard just then ran to me on foot and said that the Zebra horse was killed. He took a handkerchief, bound up my arm, and then ran back to the 61st.

As the impulse was favorable to a charge I decided to go on farther, and, asking Brooke's regiment on French's left to lie down, called again: "Forward!" And on we went, pushing back the enemy and breaking through the nearest line. We pressed our way over uneven ground to the neighborhood of the crossroads.

The rear of their line was rapidly firing. My grey had his left foreleg broken and, though I was not aware of it, I had been wounded again, my right elbow having been shattered by a rifle shot. Lieutenant Howard was missing. Lieutenant William McIntyre seized me, and put me in a sheltered place on the ground. I heard him say: "General, you shall not be killed." McIntyre himself was slain near that spot, giving his life for mine. The bullets were just then raining upon our men, who without flinching were firing back.

(3) After being badly wounded at Fair Oaks, General Oliver Howard was taken to a large house that had been converted into a Union Army hospital.

Dr. Hammond, my personal friend, met me near the house, saw the blood, touched my arm, and said: "General, your arm is broken." The last ball had passed through the elbow joint and crushed the bones into small fragments. He led me to a negro hut, large enough only for a double bed. Here I lay down, alarming an aged negro couple who feared at first that some of us might discover and seize hidden treasure which was in that bed.

My brigade surgeon, Dr, Palmer, and several others soon stood by my bedside in consultation. At last Dr. Palmer, with serious face, kindly told me that my arm had better come off. "All right, go ahead," I said.

"Not before 5 p.m., general." "Why not?" "Reaction must set in." So I had to wait six hours. I had received the second wound about half-past ten. I had reached the house about eleven, and in some weakness and discomfort occupied the negro cabin till the hour appointed. At that time Dr. Palmer came with four stout soldiers and a significant stretcher. The doctor put around the arm close to the shoulder the tourniquet, screwing it tighter and tighter above the wound. They then bore me to the amputating room, a place a little gruesome with arms, legs, and hands not yet all carried off, and poor fellows with anxious eyes waiting their turn.